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September 30, 2018

Roll Yourself to Better Health with a Foam Roller

foam roller
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

If you have been to a gym or fitness center you may have seen people rolling various parts of their body over three-foot long cylindrical pieces of firm foam. And, you might be thinking, “What are they doing?”  They are massaging themselves with a foam roller and working out  tender areas in their muscles.

History of the Foam Roller

Though the use of foam rollers has more or less gone mainstream this past decade, foam rollers have been used as a form of manual therapy for much longer. They were first used to help with balance and body support by practitioners of Feldenkrais Method – a method to reduce pain and mobility issues by improving range of motion, flexibility, and coordination aimed towards towards achieving graceful and efficient movements.

But, it wasn’t until 1987 that they were used as tools for self-massage. In the 1990s the term “self myofascial release” came in vogue and the use foam rollers started to take off. The first foam roller patent was registered in 2004. A 1196 report discussed the role of foam rollers as a warm up routine in the performing arts.

The use of foam rollers for physical therapy and treatment of athletic injuries is being studied more and more. Here is a link from PUBMED showing a sampling of studies on foam rollers.

Foam Roller Benefits

Have sore or tight muscles? If “yes”, then a foam roller may be for you.

Basically, foam rolling increases the range of movement across a joint by several mechanisms which we will get to. It is useful to foam roll after a workout.

Foam roller benefits include:

  • increased blood flow which helps soft tissue healing providing oxygen and nutrients for repair.
  • increased range of motion and muscle flexibility.
  • the increased range of motion allows muscle to work more efficiently during exercise or competition.
  • reduced injury risk.
  • improved recovery time following a workout.

How Does a Foam Roller Work?

Foam rollers can be used two main ways. In the first way, the roller is used to apply acupressure to a tender area of a given muscle frequently called a trigger point. You isolate the tender area by rolling the specific body part until you find the tender spot and then hold that part of the muscle on the roller from anywhere to 15 to 30 seconds/

And, the second way rollers are used is to massage a muscle by repetitively moving a muscle group back and forth over the foam roller.

Foam rollers exert their benefits through a few different mechanisms:

  • Rollers stimulate mechanoreceptors in the muscles which eventually causes the muscle to relax.
  • Rollers help realign collagen in the soft tissues leading to increases suppleness of the muscle and less resistance.
  • Heat is generated by the accupressure and rolling of the muscle over the roller which makes muscles easier to stretch.
  • When used after a workout foam rolling can help remove toxins and lactic acid from the exercised muscle groups enhancing exercise recovery.
foam roller
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Types of Foam Rollers

Foam rollers are easy to purchase online. You will find no shortage of foam rollers available on the market at Amazon. They typically cost about $20 – far less than a massage and the rollers are durable and can last for years.

Rollers come in lengths ranging from one foot to three-foot long and most have a diameter of six inches, though if you look hard enough you can find rollers less than six inches in diameter. The black roller in both photos above is probably six inches and the orange one probably three to four inches in diameter to give you some idea of the dimensions.

Foam rollers can be textured to better target trigger points and provide a more massage-like encounter – what some call a trigger point foam roller. Some rollers come packaged with videos demonstrating how to use a foam roller illustrating foam rolling exercises for various body parts. You can also go to YouTube to videos on how to use a foam roller.

Is there a best foam roller? Based on our research most rollers seam of equal quality and are priced similarly.

Foam Roller Exercises

If you use a foam roller expect some discomfort. It is going to hurt some – until you “work the kinks out” in your muscles. If there is not some discomfort you are either not applying enough pressure against the roller or your technique is improper. Technique is important.

You can use a roller to exercise nearly all major muscle groups: thighs, inner thighs,  iliotibial band, tensor fascia lata, hip flexors, calves, shins, buttocks, upper back, lower back, mid-back, neck, latissimus doors, and triceps.

We found this excellent video which nicely demonstrates foam roller exercises for most muscle groups. Pay close attention the techniques that Ms. Borden describes and demonstrate to get the most from your foam roller.


There are some do nots. Foam rollers are for use on muscles. Do not use them to roll over joints and avoid using them to roll your abdomen.

Live long, stay young – roll yourself to better health!



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Dr. Joe Jacko

Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio at Grandview Primary Care. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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